The secret to resiliency: neighbors

The people in your neighborhood are your best resource when disaster strikes.

This was the reoccurring theme in this morning's TEDxNYIT talks on resiliency, a part of the celebration of New York's Archtober.

"The first scale of resiliency is the people around you, not the buildings," said Illya Azaroff, the American Insitute of Architects' co-chair of the Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee. The importance of building strong communities capable of working together was repeated by several of the speakers, although they reached that conclusion from different perspectives.

Azaroff called for the New Yorkers to break out of a city-centered perspective, and look to the larger region and even globally to understand large-scale disasters like Hurricane Sandy. "We need to look everywhere for answers," he said, suggesting that cities like New York and New Orleans could learn from communities in Haiti or Cuba, where hurricanes occur regularly.

"Catastrophes are often unimaginable," said Margaret Newman, who works for the New York Department of Transportation. She provided two potent examples. The first, was on September 11, 2001. After the second World Trade Center tower had been hit, she spoke with her neighbor about the possibility that the tower could collapse. "We imagined the tower would fall like a tree," she recalled, yet it collapsed in on itself. The second example was of a communications hub that was designed after 9/11 to be a backup in the case of emergency. Located in lower Manhattan, this carefully planned center was flooded and rendered useless.

Nonetheless, Newman said that these disasters are opportunities to not only ask what it means to be prepared, but also what we want to see in the future. Current initiatives in New York not only include bracing for the rising tides of climate change, particularly with the Building Resiliency Task Force announced in June. Yet they also aim to build a stronger community through improved public spaces and facilities, like Citi Bike and more pedestrian space in Times Square.

Industrial designer Claes Frossen emphasized the importance of community with the story of an extraordinary design challenge. Gallivare, a town of about 8,000 residents had to move when the local mine began to cave in. Frossen's team hosted a design workshop to build a new town for the people of Gallivare. The most important part of the team of designers, who set up shop in a sports arena, was to engage the local community. The town's residents, including school children, were invited to visit the designers and participate in the design of their future.
Margaret Badore // Rob Dembo speaks at TEDxNYIT/CC BY 2.0

The idea of participation was echoed by Ron Dembo, of the Toronto firm Zerofootprint. "Engagement is an untapped resource," he said, in his talk that centered around the possibilities of changing people's behaviors through design. This design idea doesn't only apply to buildings and city planning, but also to software and data deployment. "I have great faith that with the right kind of connected software, we can reward people for better behavior."

Overall the message was clear: there's no magic bullet that will save us from the next disaster. The one sure thing is this: people working together are the key to a resilient future.

Tags: Architecture | Communities | New York City | resilience